Western Washington becomes gourmet grain mecca

  • By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
  • Monday, March 3, 2014 1:43pm
  • Life

One of the country’s top restaurants — New York’s Blue Hill — uses flour from wheat grown and milled in Western Washington.

Nope, it’s not an anomaly.

The marine climate and long summer days are good for heirloom wheat and new specialty grains.

Local farmers and millers are catching on, producing whole grains and flours that are tastier, healthier and more nutritious than much of the soft white wheat grown east of the mountains for commodities or export.

In turn, local wheat has attracted the attention of top chefs regionally and across the country.

In fact, Western Washington has become a grain mecca, said Stephen Jones, director of the Washington State University Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Blue Hill, which won the James Beard Foundation award for the Outstanding Restaurant in 2013, sent two of its chefs to Mount Vernon in February to work with various grains being studied and tested at the research center.

With help from WSU’s resident baker Jonathan Bethony McDowell, Blue Hill’s Adam Kaye and Devin McDavid sifted ground grain and made whole wheat breads, cookies and pastas with few other ingredients than flour and water.

Kaye and McDavid compared the qualities of different doughs, testing to see what could tolerate being mixed and what could be sweetened with malted wheat syrup instead of sugar.

The farm-to-table food ethic is spreading across the country, McDavid said. “It’s fun to come here to the bread lab, experiment with recipes and be at the forefront of this.”

Farmers in Snohomish and Skagit counties and many more from lower British Columbia to Eugene, Ore., are part of the grain renaissance, growing varieties of wheat, barley, rye, oats, buckwheat and amaranth, Jones said.

La Conner farmer David Hedlin is thrilled to add grains to what he grows in his vegetable fields. For one thing, he has found that the practice is good for the soil, Hedlin said.

On a drive through the countryside, people can see that farmland in Western Washington is looking more like it did 100 years ago when grain fields were common, Jones said.

Since then, as farmers grew more peas and seed crops, grains were mainly a cover crop and the generational knowledge of how to grow grains well was nearly lost.

As grain is reintroduced into the crop rotations on local farms, those farmers can look forward to income from sales of wheat to craft breweries and distilleries, artisan bakeries, flour mills and restaurants that focus on food from nearby sources.

Driven by consumer demand, there is an effort here to grow more organic whole grains as well as grain alternatives such as quinoa that can be used to make gluten-free products.

The Blue Hill restaurant and its owners have been working with Jones and WSU for many years.

“We send flour to Blue Hill every few weeks,” Jones said. “And we’re not talking about soulless, tasteless bags of flour. Our desire is that our research will benefit the local farmers who grow grains and the people who use those grains to make food. It would be great to see more local flour being used by home bakers, too. “

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Where to buy

Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Burlington uses locally grown grains.

Its products are sold at the Sno-Isle Food Co-op in Everett, where grocery manager Stephanie Davis hopes to focus more on flour from grains grown in the region.

Fairhaven Flour also is available at Whole Foods in Lynnwood, PCC in Edmonds, Central Market in Mill Creek and Haggen stores throughout Snohomish County.

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